As the great period of Athenian drama drew to an end at the beginning of the 4th century bce, Athenian philosophers began to analyze its content and formulate its structure. In the thought of Plato (c. 427–347 bce), the history of the criticism of tragedy began with speculation on the role of censorship. To Plato (in the dialogue on the Laws) the state was the noblest work of art, a representation (mimēsis) of the fairest and best life. He feared the tragedians’ command of the expressive resources of language, which might be used to the detriment of worthwhile institutions. He feared, too, the emotive effect of poetry, the Dionysian element that is at the very basis of tragedy. Therefore, he recommended that the tragedians submit their works to the rulers, for approval, without which they could not be performed. It is clear that tragedy, by nature exploratory, critical, independent, could not live under such a regimen.
Plato is answered, in effect and perhaps intentionally, by Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle defends the purgative power of tragedy and, in direct contradiction to Plato, makes moralambiguity the essence of tragedy. The tragic hero must be neither a villain nor a virtuous man but a “character between these two extremes,…a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty [hamartia].” The effect on the audience will be similarly ambiguous. A perfect tragedy, he says, should imitate actions that excite “pity and fear.” He uses Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as a paradigm. Near the beginning of the play, Oedipus asks how his stricken city (the counterpart of Plato’s state) may cleanse itself, and the word he uses for the purifying action is a form of the word catharsis. The concept of catharsis provides Aristotle with his reconciliation with Plato, a means by which to satisfy the claims of both ethics and art. “Tragedy,” says Aristotle, “is an imitation [mimēsis] of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” Ambiguous means may be employed, Aristotle maintains in contrast to Plato, to a virtuous and purifying end.
To establish the basis for a reconciliation between ethical and artistic demands, Aristotle insists that the principal element in the structure of tragedy is not character but plot. Since the erring protagonist is always in at least partial opposition to the state, the importance of tragedy lies not in the character but in the enlightening event. “Most important of all,” Aristotle said, “is the structure of the incidents. For tragedy is an imitation not of men but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” Aristotle considered the plot to be the soul of a tragedy, with character in second place. The goal of tragedy is not suffering but the knowledge that issues from it, as the denouement issues from a plot. The most powerful elements of emotional interest in tragedy, according to Aristotle, are reversal of intention or situation (peripeteia) and recognition scenes (anagnōrisis), and each is most effective when it is coincident with the other. In Oedipus, for example, the messenger who brings Oedipus news of his real parentage, intending to allay his fears, brings about a sudden reversal of his fortune, from happiness to misery, by compelling him to recognize that his wife is also his mother.
Later critics found justification for their own predilections in the authority of Greek drama and Aristotle. For example, the Roman poet Horace, in his Ars poetica (Art of Poetry), elaborated the Greek tradition of extensively narrating offstage events into a dictum on decorum forbidding events such as Medea’s butchering of her sons from being performed on stage. And where Aristotle had discussed tragedy as a separate genre, superior to epic poetry, Horace discussed it as a genre with a separate style, again with considerations of decorum foremost. A theme for comedy may not be set forth in verses of tragedy; each style must keep to the place allotted it.
On the basis of this kind of stylistic distinction, the Aeneid, the epic poem of Virgil, Horace’s contemporary, is called a tragedy by the fictional Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, on the grounds that the Aeneid treats only of lofty things. Dante calls his own poem a comedy partly because he includes “low” subjects in it. He makes this distinction in his De vulgari eloquentia (1304–05; “Of Eloquence in the Vulgar”) in which he also declares the subjects fit for the high, tragic style to be salvation, love, and virtue. Despite the presence of these subjects in this poem, he calls it a comedy because his style of language is “careless and humble” and because it is in the vernacular tongue rather than Latin. Dante makes a further distinction:
Comedy…differs from tragedy in its subject matter, in this way, that tragedy in its beginning is admirable and quiet, in its ending or catastrophe fouled and horrible…. From this it is evident why the present work is called a comedy.
Dante’s emphasis on the outcome of the struggle rather than on the nature of the struggle is repeated by Chaucer and for the same reason: their belief in the providential nature of human destiny. Like Dante, he was under the influence of De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), the work of the 6th-century Roman philosopher Boethius that he translated into English. Chaucer considered Fortune to be beyond the influence of the human will. In his Canterbury Tales, he introduces “The Monk’s Tale” by defining tragedy as “a certeyn storie… / of him that stood in greet prosperitee, / And is y-fallen out of heigh degree / Into miserie, and endeth wrecchedly.” Again, he calls his Troilus and Criseyde a tragedy because, in the words of Troilus, “all that comth, comth by necessitee… / That forsight of divine purveyaunce / Hath seyn alwey me to forgon Criseyde.”
The critical tradition of separating the tragic and comic styles is continued by the Elizabethan English poet Sir Philip Sidney, whose Defence of Poesie (also published as An Apologie for Poetrie) has the distinction of containing the most extended statement on tragedy in the English Renaissance and the misfortune of having been written in the early 1580s (published 1595), before the first plays of Shakespeare, or even of Marlowe. Nevertheless, Sidney wrote eloquently of “high and excellent tragedy, that…with stirring the affects of admiration and commiseration teacheth the uncertainty of this world and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.”
Since the word admiration here means awe, Sidney’s “admiration and commiseration” are similar to Aristotle’s “pity and fear.” He differs from Aristotle, however, in preferring epic to tragic poetry. The Renaissance was almost as concerned as Plato with the need to justify poetry on ethical grounds, and Sidney ranks epic higher than tragedy because it provides morally superior models of behaviour.
Sidney goes further than mere agreement with Aristotle, however, in championing the unities of time and place. Aristotle had asserted the need for a unity of time: “Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit.” Sidney, following the lead of a 16th-century Italian Neoclassicist, Ludovico Castelvetro, added the unity of place: “The stage should always represent but one place, and the uttermost time presupposed in it should be, both by Aristotle’s precept and common reason, but one day.” Sidney also seconds Horace’s disapproval of the mingling of styles, which Sidney says produces a “mongrel tragicomedy.”
Shakespeare’s opinion of the relative merits of the genres is unknown, but his opinion of the problem itself may be surmised. In Hamlet he puts these words in the mouth of the foolish old pedant Polonius: “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral; scene individable, or poem unlimited” (Act II, scene 2). As to the Classical unities, Shakespeare adheres to them only twice and neither time in a tragedy, in The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest. And through the mouths of his characters, Shakespeare, like Aristotle, puts himself on both sides of the central question of tragic destiny—that of freedom and necessity. Aristotle says that a tragic destiny is precipitated by the hero’s tragic fault, his “error or frailty” (hamartia), but Aristotle also calls this turn of events a change of “fortune.” Shakespeare’s Cassius in Julius Caesar says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves,” and, in King Lear, Edmund ridicules a belief in fortune as the “foppery of the world.” But Hamlet, in a comment on the nature of hamartia, is a fatalist when he broods on the “mole of nature,” the “one defect” that some men are born with, “wherein they are not guilty,” and that brings them to disaster (Act I, scene 4). Similarly, Sophocles’ Oedipus, though he says, “It was Apollo who brought my woes to pass,” immediately adds, “it was my hand that struck my eyes.” These ambiguities are a powerful source of the tragic emotion of Athenian and Elizabethan drama, unequalled by traditions that are more sure of themselves, such as French Neoclassicism, or less sure of themselves, such as 20th-century drama.
In the Neoclassical period Aristotle’s reasonableness was replaced by rationality, and his moral ambiguity by the mechanics of “poetic justice.” In the 17th century, under the guise of a strict adherence to Classical formulas, additional influences were brought to bear on the theory of tragedy. In France, the theological doctrine of Jansenism, which called for an extreme orthodoxy, exercised a strong influence. In England, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, with the reopening of the theatres, introduced a period of witty and lusty literature. In both nations, the influence of natural law—the idea that laws binding upon humanity are inferable from nature—increased, along with the influence of the exact sciences. Critics in both nations declared that Aristotle’s “rules” were made to reduce nature into a method.
In his 1679 preface to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Dryden says, “we lament not, but detest a wicked man, we are glad when we behold his crimes are punished, and that Poetical justice is done upon him.” Similar sentiments, calling for the punishment of crimes and the reward of virtue, were expressed in France. Catharsis had become vindication. Thomas Rymer, one of the most influential English critics of the time, in The Tragedies of The Last Age (1678), wrote that
besides the purging of the passions, something must stick by observing…that necessary relation and chain, whereby the causes and the effects, the vertues and rewards, the vices and their punishments are proportion’d and link’d together, how deep and dark soever are laid the Springs, and however intricate and involv’d are their operations.
The effect was to rob tragedy of a great deal of its darkness and depth. The temper of the age demanded that mystery be brought to the surface and to the light, a process that had effects not merely different from but in part antipathetic to tragedy. Nicolas Boileau, the chief spokesman of the French Neoclassical movement, in his discussion of pity and fear in Art Poétique (1674), qualified these terms with the adjectives beguiling and pleasant (pitié charmante, douce terreur), which radically changed their meaning. The purged spectator became a grateful patient.
In his preface to Phèdre (1677), Racine subscribed to the quid pro quo view of retribution.
I have written no play in which virtue has been more celebrated than in this one. The smallest faults are here severely punished; the mere idea of a crime is looked upon with as much horror as the crime itself.
Of Phèdre herself, his greatest heroine, he says,
I have taken the trouble to make her a little less hateful than she is in the ancient versions of this tragedy, in which she herself resolves to accuse Hippolytus. I judged that that calumny had about it something too base and black to be put into the mouth of a Princess…. This depravity seemed to me more appropriate to the character of a nurse, whose inclinations might be supposed to be more servile.
For Aristotle, pity and fear made a counterpoint typical of Classicism, each tempering the other to create a balance. For Racine, pity and fear each must be tempered in itself. In the marginalia to his fragmentary translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, Racine wrote that in arousing the passions of pity and fear, tragedy
removes from them whatever they have of the excessive and the vicious and brings them back to a moderated condition and conformable to reason.
Corneille contradicted Aristotle outright. Discussing Le Cid he said, in A Discourse on Tragedy (1660),
Our pity ought to give us fear of falling into similar misfortune, and purge us of that excess of love which is the cause of their disaster…but I do not know that it gives us that, or purges us, and I am afraid that the reasoning of Aristotle on this point is but a pretty idea…it is not requisite that these two passions always serve together…it suffices…that one of the two bring about the purgation.
The accommodation of tragedy to Neoclassical ideas of order demanded a simplification of tragedy’s complexities and ambiguities. The simplifying process was now inspired, however, by the fundamental tenet of all primitive scientific thought namely, that orderliness and naturalness are in a directly proportionate relationship. Racine declared the basis of the naturalistic effect in drama to be a strict adherence to the unities, which now seem the opposite of naturalistic. In his preface to Bérénice (1670), he asked what probability there could be when a multitude of things that would scarcely happen in several weeks are made to happen in a day. The illusion of probability, which is the Aristotelian criterion for the verisimilitude of a stage occurrence, is made to sound as if it were the result of a strict dramaturgical determinism, on the grounds that necessity is the truest path to freedom.
Racine and Corneille both contradicted Dante and Chaucer on the indispensability of a catastrophic final scene. “Blood and deaths,” said Racine, are not necessary, for “it is enough that the action be grand, that the actors be heroic, that the passions be aroused” to produce “that stately sorrow that makes the whole pleasure of tragedy” (preface to Bérénice).
Milton was artistically much more conservative. He prefaced his Samson Agonistes (1671) with a warning against the
error of intermixing Comic stuff with Tragic sadness and gravity; or introducing trivial and vulgar persons: which by all judicious hath been counted absurd; and brought in without discretion, corruptly to gratify the people.
He bypassed Shakespeare for the ancients and ranked Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as tragic poets unequalled yet by any others. Part of the rule, for Milton, was that which affirmed the unities. In his concurrence with the Classical idea of the purgative effect of pity and fear, Milton combined reactionary aesthetics with the scientific spirit of the recently formed Royal Society.
Nor is Nature wanting in her own effects to make good his assertion [Aristotle on catharsis]: for so, in Physic things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours.
Dryden spoke against a delimiting conception of either the genres or the unities. Speaking in the guise of Neander in Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay (1668), he said that it was
to the honour of our nation, that we have invented, increased, and perfected a more pleasant way of writing for the stage, than was ever known to the ancients or moderns of any nation, which is tragi-comedy.
The French dramatists, he felt, through their observance of the unities of time and place, wrote plays characterized by a dearth of plot and narrowness of imagination. Racine’s approach to the question of probability was turned completely around by Dryden, who asked:
How many beautiful accidents might naturally happen in two or three days, which cannot arrive with any probability in the compass of twenty-four hours?
The definitive critique of Neoclassical restrictions was not formulated, however, until the following century, when it was made by Samuel Johnson and was, significantly, part of his 1765 preface to Shakespeare, the first major step in the long process of establishing Shakespeare as the preeminent tragic poet of post-Classical drama. On genre he wrote:
Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind;…expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend…. That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.
And on the unities:
The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. [But] the objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens, the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria…. Surely he that imagines this may imagine more.
Johnson’s appeal to nature was the essence of subsequent Romantic criticism.
The personal essay is not dead, but has it traded politics for style?
Too Much and Not the Mood
FSG Originals, $15 (paper)
Somebody with a Little Hammer
Penguin Random House, $25.95 (cloth)
Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil
University of Chicago Press, $75 (cloth), $25 (paper)
The first essay in Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is called “Heart Museum,” and it opens with a long description of an iPhone emoji:
There's an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows. Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high. Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular. I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?”
The style is proudly mannered: the twee metaphors, the gratuitous details, the repetition of these details to tiresome effect. One can see the author chasing down a shallow sort of mimesis, willing her readers to join her as she double-checks and sometimes triple-checks the emoji so that we too might experience the starts and stops and pauses of her heart. But one can see no reason why her readers might want to share in either this experience or the many other experiences of bourgeois living chronicled in “Heart Museum”: dinner parties and dates, travels to Machu Picchu and Kolkata, ritualized anxiety attacks about the relationship between writing personal essays and pointless self-indulgence—an occupational hazard, she suggests, suffered by only the most tender-hearted initiates of New York City’s creative class.
For Chew-Bose, this isn’t a problem—indeed this is her point. All rhyme and no reason, she claims a little later in the essay, is preferable to “writing that clinches,” by which I take her to mean writing that too eagerly betrays its argument for the sake of some fidgety, faceless reader. “No writer hopes for ideas to take complete shape. Approximation is the mark,” she states—the first of many prescriptions about what writing is and what it is not; what can and what cannot be accomplished by paying careful attention to form or style. Most of these statements arrive as metaphors that substitute nonsense for sense, preciousness for persuasion. Writing is “a closed pistachio shell.” Writing is a “doubled-up glove.” Writing is, “off and on, running smack into Aha! and staring down Duh.” (She has a fondness for italicized onomatopoeia—“GASP!” “Oof.” “Woah.” “Pop!”) Writing is losing yourself, finding yourself, falling in love, having your heart broken, getting drunk, having sex, thinking about some stuff then thinking about some other stuff that kind of relates to the original stuff you were thinking about but not really.
But what makes “Heart Museum” so dispiriting is not the quality of Chew-Bose’s prose. Rather, it is how the essay not only celebrates its aesthetic failings, but also insists that these failings testify to the author’s success as a sensitive ethical thinker. If the prose is clunky, if the posturing is overindulgent, if the plot is lost and never found, then, Chew-Bose would have us believe, we have no recourse as readers but to grant how the formlessness of her writing—she would call it the “breathlessness” or perhaps the “messiness” of it—forces us to reflect on timeless quandaries about life and art. Is the writer a reliable witness to the past? Can she ever truly know the human beings she writes about? Can she ever truly know herself? Chew-Bose’s answer to all these questions is “I guess? Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing. Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. But for whose benefit?
In a sense, there is nothing unique about the pose Too Much and Not the Mood strikes—and this is the real problem. For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy. Messy feelings, messy reality, messy relationships, the messy unfiltered stuff of life; the personal essayist evacuates all in one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns. “Style is character,” Joan Didion proclaimed in her 1979 essay collection The White Album. However imprecise this statement of equivalence may be, one suspects that it has been thoroughly internalized by personal essayists today who elide aesthetic judgments—judgments about the formal or stylistic features of prose—with ethical and subjective ones that assess the character of the human being who would produce such prose.
The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed). The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows. Taking an unapologetically snobbish tone in her 1905 essay “The Decay of Essay Writing,” Virginia Woolf lamented how the nineteenth-century democratization of literacy had flooded the literary marketplace with personal essays. A new class of writers, blinkered by the “amazing and unclothed egoism” that came from asserting one’s importance through reading and writing, thought nothing of sacrificing “their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox,” Woolf complained. Theirs was a mass demonstration of newly acquired cultural capital over and above any aesthetic or political purpose they may have had for putting pen to paper in the first place. “You need know nothing of music, art, or literature to have a certain interest in their productions, and the great burden of modern criticism is simply the expression of such individual likes and dislikes—the amiable garrulity of the tea-table—cast in the form of the essay,” Woolf wrote, scolding those middle-class writers who would dare leave their grubby prints on the windowpane of good prose. If one can set aside her disdain, there is a larger point: too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.
If, in the early twentieth century, the “I” of the personal essay bespoke the educated man or woman, then today it inaugurates the mindful one; the subject whose apparently infinite capacity for self-reflexivity trades the precision of language and thought for “the baggy fit of feelings before they’ve found their purpose” (Chew-Bose again). Yet the shamelessness with which the bargain is brokered these days can leave a reader feeling like something cheap and tawdry is at work: a shortcut hacked through the dense thicket of form and feeling. More than the lack of conviction or the preciousness of prose, it is the peacocking of the author that chafes. What should we make of writing that serves primarily, and sometimes exclusively, to present the author as a more admirably complicated type of human subject than others? It is the literary equivalent of the ill-mannered man who, thinking himself to be very mature, declares, “I may be an asshole, but look how self-aware I am about it.”
It is precisely the gimmicky quality of authorship that Jia Tolentino registers—albeit somewhat unwittingly—in a recent New Yorker piece titled “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Around 2008, Tolentino claims, the personal essay began to “harden into a form defined by identity and adversity—not in spite of how tricky it is to negotiate these matters in front of a crowd, but precisely because of that fact.” If Woolf had mass literacy to blame, then Tolentino has the Internet, which, she argues, seduced American narcissists with the same siren song of self-assertion that penmanship drills did for the British middle class. Her argument draws on a strangely truncated history of the personal essay, beginning with the collapse of LiveJournal in 2008 and ending with the 2016 presidential election—the last stand of American “identity politics,” she claims, before the emergence of a new, more thoughtful political consciousness that exiled the personal from the republic of letters, possibly for good. As Tolentino sees it, under Donald Trump’s threats to liberty and justice, even the most egoistic of writers suddenly developed an acute sense for their own irrelevance and scurried away from public exposure like mice fleeing a raucous cat. Now the most poignant thing about the state of the personal essay was its loss. “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason,” Tolentino mourns. “I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”
It’s not an especially persuasive argument—a selective history coupled with a wide-eyed faith in the writer’s desire (or ability) to stop thinking about herself. Lucky for us, the universe of the personal essay is not as young as Tolentino believes it to be, and not everyone who inhabits it hounds their readers into choosing between a total lack of purpose and an interesting prose style.
• • •
The antidote to Too Much and Not the Mood might be Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody with a Little Hammer, a collection of her reviews, essays, and short memoirs from the past two decades. Here and there we catch glimpses of Gaitskill’s life: first as a high school dropout, then as a teenage runaway, a psychiatric patient, a homeless drifter, a born-again Christian, an occasional stripper and sex worker, a journalism student, a professional writer. There is plenty of material here to mine for dramatic revelation. Yet even while invoking these experiences, the essays she writes are so circumspect in their claims to self-knowledge that a reader grown used to the personal essay’s relentless flash of exposure might wonder what kind of shy, self-effacing creature produced them.
But Gaitskill is anything but shy. Somebody with a Little Hammer offers strong aesthetic judgments about music, movies, and literature in a tone that brooks no disagreement. “Bitch, please,” Gaitskill snaps at writers from Carl Wilson to Elizabeth Wurtzel to Gillian Flynn, while commending the ordinary loveliness of Nicholson Baker’s prose and Björk’s pop music. She enjoys coming to the defense of writers whom mainstream literary critics, their sense clogged by all the “silly shit” in the ether, have savaged, mocked, or simply failed to appreciate. Of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, a novel about Marilyn Monroe that Gaitskill praises as “beautiful and clear,” she writes:
One is given the impression of a soul that has been, by some impossible error, snatched from its deep place in the psyche and thrust into a maze of personality and persona, through which it must grope and blunder, trying to make sense of the earthly barrage of words, images, and ideas like ‘movie star.’ The Monroe of Blonde is like every other lost soul, except that her lost state is so brutally public; in this essential way, the character may be true to the real woman, who continues to touch our imaginations more deeply than can be explained by great beauty and brilliance alone.
In her description of Oates’s Marilyn, one can find the nerve center of Gaitskill’s aesthetic and ethical project, which is nothing as generic as observing weakness or redeeming suffering, as many of her critics have suggested. It is the graceful acceptance of psychic irretrievability—the impossibility of knowing what may or may not touch the imagination; what may or may not undo the soul. We are all lost creatures, Gaitskill suggests, and not one of us can or ought to try to claim the higher ground of knowledge; not knowledge of ourselves, not knowledge of the world, and certainly not knowledge of others. There exists an “inexorable, ridiculous order that is unknowable by us,” she writes in the collection’s opening essay “A Lot of Exploding Heads,” which recalls her aimless conversion to Christianity and her first encounter with God’s absolute, incomprehensible rage in the Bible. Despite “the soft, radiant beauty of many of its passages,” she writes, it has a “mechanical quality” that feels “brutal and violent.” Its prescriptiveness will always fall short of psychological or spiritual revelation because its style is premised on its writer’s omniscience—his “primitive attempt to give form to moral urgency.” “All I felt was that persistent sense of truncation, the intimation of something enormous and inchoate trying to squeeze through the static form of written words,” she remembers. “These realizations don’t mean I have arrived at a point of any real knowledge, but they are interesting as markers of my development.”
This resignation is not the same as messiness or moral ambiguity. It is, in fact, its opposite. Ambiguity wants desperately to know, and not just to know but to know in spades. A writer like Chew-Bose pursues multiple interpretations for why people do what they do and what it means about who they are, leaving in her wake a trail of confused feelings, theories, and metaphors; evidence that she has circled the truth like a dog has stalked its dinner—from all angles. Gaitskill never even makes the attempt. For her, there exists no obvious relationship between the complexity of human experience and the profusion of prose; no need for qualification or subordination, the pile-up of pretty phrases to approximate an awful truth that will only recede before us. For Gaitskill, part of growing up as a writer has been learning to accept “my own stringent limitations when it comes to giving form to impossible complexity.” For her reader, it feels refreshing to finally have a grownup in the room, laying down the law but not really caring whether you follow it or not.
Part of growing up, too, is learning what objects in the world are worthy of our sustained attention. People are less original than they would like to think, and living is both less transcendent and less abject than most acts of narration would lead us to believe. Many of us move through life according to a relatively predictable set of rules and social codes that shape not only human behavior but also the kinds of art human beings produce to reflect their moral universe—the Bible, for instance, but also nineteenth-century novels, romantic comedies, and memoirs. This is a phenomenon that Gaitskill describes time and again as “mechanicalness,” and it grinds all manner of human interactions down into dirty shards of reality: rigid debates about sexual propriety and dating; the preoccupation with being cool; the idle chirping of social media. Since all this further alienates us from anything like a knowable or authentic self, the essayist’s ethical prerogative is to pay close and direct attention to this mechanicalness—to note its predictability, its self-absorption, its avoidance of painful reality: how it “cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning,” Gaitskill observes.
Her preferred metaphor—her only one in fact—for describing the mechanical quality of the world is the mask. Here she is, for instance, on Carl Wilson’s book about hating Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love:
What Wilson is describing, in this section and throughout the book, is a world of illusory shared experience, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy.”
And on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel Gone Girl:
What makes Gone Girl scary rather than kooky is its cast of characters—what motivates them, and how they view each other. Amy and Nick do not resemble actual people so much as grotesquely smiling masks driven by forces of malevolent artifice, and its exactly that masked, artificial quality that’s frightening to the point of sickening. Most frightening of all is that the artifice is so normal.
And on Lars von Trier’s old-fashioned musical Dancer in the Dark:
The musical sequences are not just charming, weird delusions; they are there to show that under the ‘story’ of these lives there is a broader reality in which people who are deadly enemies or dear friends are merely playing roles for the sake of the soul’s exercise. Further, these roles are in fact flimsy and can be stepped out of for transcendent moments that expose human personality as a mask and human action, whether compassionate or cruel, as a kind of ridiculous theater.
The procession of masks in Somebody with a Little Hammer is at once terrifying and strangely anodyne. Everyone wears them all the time, which doesn’t make them any less garish; it only means you need someone to remind you repeatedly that they’re always in the wings, leering.
For Gaitskill, the best art illuminates the cracks in our inexhaustible social performances, lighting our way through “the maze of personality and persona” so that we may, if only for a brief and fragile moment, forget who or what we are playing at. Often, the best art is not serious or dignified. It is silly and irrelevant, irrational and ecstatic. It is the frantic, funky murmur of the Talking Heads on their album Remain in Light. It is the closing number in Dancer in the Dark, when Selma, a factory worker on the verge of going blind, shoots a police officer who has betrayed her, and he, instead of bleeding to death at her feet or shooting back, rises from the floor so that the two may sing a rapturous duet called “I’ve Seen It All.” It is Humbert Humbert’s feverish confession of his love for seventeen-year-old Dolores Haze, now “pale and polluted and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine” in the final pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. None of these works of art aspires to truth in any revelatory sense of the word. Most are elaborate jokes, toying with our romantic sensibilities. Yet each admits a sliver of light into the theater of tragic automata and lets it dance, briefly, with abandon.
To Gaitskill’s list, we might add “The Bridge: A Memoir of Saint Petersburg”—one of only a small handful of memoirs in Somebody with a Little Hammer. Gaitskill recalls how on a trip to Russia for a writers’ conference she and her husband were floating down the Neva when she was hit in the head by a bridge. Bleeding, blind, and barely conscious, she gropes through her memory and stumbles upon the face of one of the strippers she used to work with.
She didn’t dance; she posed in an almost trancelike way. Thought she did have a powerful look in her eyes sometimes, and her eyes were deep. She did this complicated ‘stocking act,’ where she would hook the stocking on the end of her toe and change position, stretching it this way and that, so that she was looking at it over her shoulder, et cetera. She’d make it this precise, balletic thing, like a narcissistic ritual, her alone in her room—and then she’d look up and give the men these hot, deep eyes, and let them in the room with her. Let them inside her, but for just a second; then she was back with the stockings. That was the striptease really; this placid beauty who suddenly showed herself. Or seemed to. It’s the cheapest trick, but she didn’t realize that, which is why it worked.
This is not a passage so much as a pose, which, like the pose it describes, seduces its reader with the promise of psychological revelation while never touching that hot, deep place in the soul. It is a respectful pose, a refusal to trespass on interiority that transforms the stripper’s cheap trick into a magisterial act of self-preservation. It is, above all, a deflection of Gaitskill’s own pain—remember her head wound?—onto the “precise, balletic thing” we would call her style.
• • •
To position Somebody with a Little Hammer as the high point of the personal essay is to gaze down a longer path for the form than the one Chew-Bose and Tolentino ask us to tread. We can begin to separate the notion of the “personal” from the adjectives that have clung to and muddied its coattails—not only “messy,” but also “warm,” “caring,” “confessional,” “emotional,” “empathetic,” and “sentimental.” What if personal writing were not a manifestation of intimacy or interiority? What if art were a dish best served cold?
Often described by her critics as a “distinctly” or “utterly unsentimental” writer (and human being), Gaitskill would have kept good company with the women Deborah Nelson assembles in her magnificent book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Nelson’s study of the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality celebrates those icy, unsparing, and acid-tongued female artists who were committed to “looking at painful reality with directness and clarity and without consolation or compensation.” Many of these women depicted their own lives in uncomfortable detail: Mary McCarthy’s religious education, Susan Sontag’s breast cancer, Joan Didion’s loss of her husband and daughter. Others, like Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, documented the horrors of industrial modernity: the miseries of factory work, the devastations of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Yet none believed that the representation of human experience, no matter how complex or agonizing or imponderable, demanded emotional expressivity. Indeed, for them, compassion for the human condition required the opposite: the evacuation of emotion from art.
Their unsentimentality was not a personal failing, Nelson claims, but a carefully constructed aesthetic and ethical strategy; a “lifelong project” that perceived, with great and terrible urgency, the limits of empathy after World War II. For the women of Tough Enough, dwelling on the emotional effects of an experience often occluded painful reality, shrouding one’s objects of criticism behind the cheap veil of sentiment and self-regard. Bringing an audience to tears was a parlor trick that preyed on people’s perverse attraction to suffering—their ability to take any awful situation, no matter how remote, and make it about their uniquely hurt feelings. Yet pain and suffering were as ordinary as living and dying, and absent-minded feelings of woundedness and pity and even love were the most illusory ethical grounds on which to build a shared world. “Generally speaking, the role of the ‘heart’ in politics seems to me altogether questionable,” wrote Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem after he chided her for the “heartless” tone she took toward the Jews in Eichmann in Jerusalem. “You know as well as I how often those who merely report certain unpleasant facts are accused of lack of soul, lack of heart. . . . We both know, in other words, how often these emotions are used in order to conceal factual truth.”
Stoicism in the face of suffering is an attitude much admired in a man. But a woman like Arendt was often the “wrong protagonist,” Nelson observes, for the conscientious management of feeling. Warmth, emotion, sentiment—all these adjectives have a long and irksome history of latching onto models of female comportment; the angel in the house, the good listener, the shoulder to cry on. But unsentimentality was a choice that came with risks: uncertainty, helplessness, alienation, a state of unhappiness from which there could be no relief, neither consolation nor commiseration. “In cases of profound and permanent unhappiness, a strongly developed sense of shame arrests all lamentation,” wrote Weil. “Every unhappy condition among men creates the silent zone alluded to, in which each is isolated as though on an island. Those who do escape from the island will not look back.”
Unsentimentality had its rewards too. Time and again, I found myself moved by Nelson’s simple, yet powerful, insistence that we disentangle ethics from empathy so that we might see anew the obligations we have to each other and to the world we share. We see it in Weil’s “painful clarity”: her simple, yet brutal, prose style that stressed concrete detail over abstraction in her descriptions of factory work, and thus extended neither sympathy nor empathy to laborers but a far greater form of compassion: attention and intellectual honesty. We see it in Arendt’s “realism”: her insistence that building a shared world after Auschwitz requires steering clear of both boundless sympathy and the “mania for introspection”—a solipsism that denies the plurality of human experience by appointing the self the primary arbiter of what is worthy of attention. We see it in McCarthy’s “factuality”: a journalistic practice of perception that attempts to isolate the truth and, in the process, often alienates the writer from her political community. We see it in the cold gaze of Arbus’s camera when she turns it on her beloved “freaks”; a willed concession of artistic control that shows us how the experience of physical and intellectual limitations is the most normal thing of all. We see it in Sontag’s strict management of desire and Didion’s moral toughness in the face of death.
To this chorus of cool female voices, we might add Gaitskill’s confrontation with the mechanicalness of life and art. Here she is writing about how Americans, who seem to love claiming the mantle of victimhood, secretly hate confronting pain:
I think this is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land for the last twenty years, telling his/her “story” and trying to get redress. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It’s to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the “story” must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life.
For Gaitskill, telling the story of one’s suffering is not an occasion for insight—it is a cause for suspicion, a crude attempt to transform endurance into resolution. Most people cannot live in the senseless and unhappy tangle of life; they need their experiences to reaffirm their sense of self, their dignity, their purpose for living. Yet every triumphal act of narration denies the painful condition of existence shared by all human beings, which is that we will all, eventually, die. Our victories over suffering are temporary at best, a trick to forestall our inevitable confrontation with meaninglessness. To pretend otherwise is a profound act of self-deception.
Under what conditions should we care about the stories of other peoples’ lives? Why, especially, should we care about them as works of art? I think there is a lesson to be learned in recalling the barest definition of “care”: “To feel concern (great or little), trouble oneself, feel interest.” Nowhere does it specify what the character of care must be; how hot or how cold it must run to do some good in the world. One can, as Nelson has, build a very persuasive case for compassion that is based on thoughtfulness, particularity, intellectual honesty—a more persuasive case, even, than compassion based on the boundlessness of feeling.
What is true for human relationships is true for art and politics. If I care about building a world, real or imaginary, with you or for you, then I should think about that world in the most accurate and realistic terms possible. I should hold you to the same standards of precision that I hold myself; even—and especially—if we disagree; even—and especially—if that disagreement is uncomfortable and alienating. “Something happens and we retell it as a story, preparing it for communication or for reviewing it later with oneself,” Nelson writes. “Thoughtlessness begins with a deliberate choice not to represent actions in language, not to create memory.” The refusal to represent, or the insistence on representing messily, is a refusal to share the world with others; a turn away from reality that is comforting because it is so deeply self-absorbed.
This brings us back to the personal essay. More than a fad and more than a form, we might think of the personal essay as a contract between reader and writer. The contract is not necessarily an emotional or intimate one, but, like all contracts, it is mutually constructed and it demands clarity. Just as the writer commits her imperceptible acts of cognition to language, asking the reader to accept this language as a poor proxy for her inner life, so too does the reader acknowledge and participate in this fantasy of self-construction. Together, reader and writer act as co-creators of a new fictional persona, the knowing self. This task is impossible, or at least impossible to derive pleasure from, without particularity and concreteness—a sense of reciprocity and respect.
Under the terms of this contract, the best part of Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood is the beginning of her essay “D As In,” in which the author considers her reluctance to correct people who mispronounce her name. She argues that her behavior complies with an “imaginary code,” a rule which those of us with “unusual” or “non-traditional”—that is, non-white—names navigate every day: “that establishing room for everyone else is the quickest route to assimilation.” Her practice of self-erasure is presented as a matter-of-fact, the price one pays for ordering a coffee, making a dinner reservation, or meeting someone new. The thoughtlessness here emerges in the racial politesse of others; the expectation that you “remedy their curiosity” about your name or the color of your skin by telling them a story. “Where are you from?” they ask; a diplomatic way of demanding, How did someone like you infiltrate my neighborhood, my school, my country?
There is the promise of a point here; something to elicit our care. Alas, it never arrives, detained by more rhetorical questions about the complexity of the self: “How can an ‘I’ contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered?” Despite her claims to racial and cultural otherness, reiterated to the point of self-fetishization, Chew-Bose’s style ensures that the vision of the world she offers her readers is totally apolitical, bereft of any common political or ethical position. As is the case for so many personal essayists, all paths lead back to the “I.” “Is this ‘I’ actually mine to own?” Chew-Bose asks. The answer is, quite simply, no—not for her and not for anyone else, at least not according to the terms set by the personal essay’s readers and writers.
Just as easily as promises are made, promises are broken. What we see in many personal essays today is not the shattering of language but the shattering of a pact. All we can hope for now is its speedy restoration.